Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Book review: The Lost Book of Mormon: A Journey Through the Mythic Lands of Nephi, Zarahemla, and Kansas City, Missouri by Avi Steinberg

This is a book that couldn't quite make up its mind. Is it funny? Is it a memoir? Is it a travelogue? Is it going to give straight-up history of Mormonism or slyly poke fun at it? The answer to all of these questions is unfortunately "kind of."

Last month I saw the musical The Book of Mormon and so when I saw this book was out, I jumped on it. I had heard of the author (in fact I own his first book though I haven't gotten around to it yet.) And from the cover and the description, I thought it would be funny or at least give me a better idea of the history behind Mormonism. And it was funny in moments, but it also was serious in others. Sometimes the author seemed to think the religion was crazy, and at other times he was very respectful and straightforward. He also hinted in a memoir-style about his failing marriage, but we never find out why it was failing or what happened to it in the end. And the final segment of the book, when Avi was participating in the annual pageant performed in New York State where Joseph Smith claimed to have found the golden plates from which he transcribed and translated The Book of Mormon, was marred by the author's inexplicable use of another name, which was found out right before the performance and he was kicked out. If he'd at least had a good excuse for doing that, I could have excused the deflated ending to the book, but it just felt like he'd stupidly panicked, which is not the sort of behavior we expect from a professional writer being paid to research this book.

That said, I think the musical set my bar too high. The book was very readable, entertaining and light, and I did learn a little bit about Smith and Mormonism, even if not exactly what I'd wanted to learn (I'm not sure the book I want to read exists.) I really liked Steinberg's comparisons of Smith's writing trials to that of every author's struggles to write. And it was interesting how he pointed out that for decades, the story of how Smith wrote the book was much more important than what was in the book. (Possibly still true today although in the late 1980s Mormons were finally encouraged to actually read it.) Laypeople who want to find out a little bit about Mormonism likely will enjoy this book, if they don't expect an academic treatise or a laugh-out-loud farce.

I checked this book out of the library.

1 comment:

Shaina said...

Hmm, too bad it wasn't what you were looking for. I too would love to read a more academic look at Mormonism—let me know if you find it!